You’re Speaking Up. Why Isn’t Your Boss Listening?


Picture this: Your boss has been begging for fresh ideas, but when you actually propose some, you have the feeling no one’s listening.

If that sounds familiar, you’re not alone. According to researchers from the McCombs School of Business, supervisors develop selective hearing when it comes to feedback.

It’s not because some workers have better ideas. Rather, managers listen more to those who enjoy certain markers of status, from being white to having a long tenure with the firm.

“When you have higher status, defined in a number of different ways, you’re recognized more for your input,” says Ethan Burris, associate management professor.

Not only do those workers get immediate recognition but they also get better performance ratings later on, the study finds. The career fallout can be particularly devastating for non-white employees. “People who are ethnic minorities are not getting credited for bringing ideas to their supervisors like whites and other majority groups are,” says management professor David Harrison. “It’s an insidious form of discrimination.”

Not Getting Credit When Credit Is Due
Employee voice is a familiar topic for Burris; he’s published several studies about how to encourage workers to speak up. But a crucial piece was missing: getting the person on the other end to listen.

Together with Harrison, whose research focuses on diversity, and Taeya Howell, who has previously examined why and how newcomers speak up, Burris surveyed 693 credit union employees across 89 office sites to better understand how workers&; status influences managers&; interest in listening. Supervisors were asked to rate workers on the frequency and value of their input, while employees rated how often they spoke up and how open supervisors were to their ideas.

At the same time, the team scored each employee on several status cues. Some were demographic, like race and gender. Others were organizational: working full-time, being with the company at least a year, or getting approached often for advice.

How might those status cues affect the credit that supervisors gave their voices? The answer: Strongly. Whites got listened to more than minorities, full-timers more than part-timers, and long-timers more than newcomers.

Like a grade-school classroom, it didn’t help anyone to raise their hands more often. Greater frequency of speech did not lead to greater recognition, except for speakers who were white or had been around more than a year.

“Even if someone spoke up more, if they tried to overcome whatever initial strikes they had against them, it didn’t seem to help them get heard by their supervisors,” says Howell, a McCombs Ph.D. who now teaches at New York University. “It’s disheartening.”

The damage got compounded over time. Workers who received less credit from their superiors ended up with lower performance ratings. “If managers are not paying attention, those employees have fewer career options,” says Harrison. “They get smaller raises than their peers.”

The sole exception to the pattern was gender. The researchers expected more men to have their bosses’ ears, but found that instead, women had the upper hand. That suggests to Harrison that what matters is which gender dominates the workplace. In the credit unions, both supervisors and subordinates were overwhelmingly female. “Males essentially are the minority in this case,” he says, “so they get listened to less.”

How to Get Yourself Heard
Turning deaf ears to some classes of employees is not just unfair, it’s also bad for business, Howell says. It can stifle innovation, particularly from newcomers. “They’re people you want to hear from because they have the freshest ideas,” she says.

Fortunately, the researchers say, businesses can take steps to help all employees be heard.

For managers, it starts with recognizing their unconscious biases and reaching out beyond their accustomed circles. “We need to be more systematic about how we solicit ideas from employees,” Harrison says.

One way to negate such prejudice, he offers, is to split the listening process in two. One person gathers employee suggestions while a separate person assesses their merit. “Whoever evaluates the ideas doesn’t know who put those ideas forward,” he says.

Lower-status employees might prioritize their suggestions, advises Burris. “If you know that you face an upper limit on recognition, be cognizant of which ideas are really good, the ones you want to devote your resources to.” Or lobby fellow workers first. In the study, employees who were known for giving advice to others got better receptions from their bosses.

Newcomers are advised to write their ideas down and — then wait. “You want to remember what you thought could be improved, because the longer you’re in an organization, the more you start to conform,” she says. “But let your newness wear off after a few months and then raise your ideas. With time, they’re likely to be better received.”


Faculty in this Article

Ethan Burris

Associate Professor of Management McCombs School of Business

Dr. Ethan Burris is an Associate Professor of Management and the Thomas E. & Terry Smith...

Ethan Burris teaches in the Texas Executive Education program, featuring open enrollment, custom and certificate classes for executives and organization teams.

David Harrison

Professor McCombs School of Business

David A. Harrison is the Charles & Elizabeth Prothro Regents Chair of Business Administration at the University of Texas, Austin. He earned a...

About The Author

Steve Brooks

In a quarter-century as a journalist, Steve Brooks has won two Neal awards for excellence in trade reporting and a Press Club of New Orleans award...

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